For Hispanics in the US, even when watching Thursday’s Premio Lo Nuestro Latin music awards ceremony from Miami on Spanish-language network Univisión, it was hard to escape the turbulent situation in Venezuela where anti-government protests continue.
What started as a relatively small-scale manifestation on the country’s crime rate in San Cristóbal, western Venezuela, has erupted into a series of mass demonstrations in the capital Caracas.
At the award ceremony, host William Levy set the tone: ‘I want to pray for peace in Venezuela’. To this, the crowd cheered as though a megastar had just walked onto the stage. Later, winner of four awards and one Excellency Prize, Marc Anthony, echoed Levy’s sentiments, addressing the Venezuelan people: ‘You are not alone,’ he said. ‘Strength! May God bless you’.
The most moving account of the night however was that of Venezuelan act Chino y Nacho, the ‘Tropical Music Duo of the Year’, who observed that their country ‘had lost respect for life’. ‘Fanaticism, and ideas, have divided a people’, they added. ‘We reject all politicking that sows hatred and division’.
Whilst speaking from the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami affords these comments the privilege of distance from the troublesome events in Venezuela, this pragmatism is exactly what is needed but lacking within the country.
The protests have given many disenchanted Venezuelans the chance to vent their anger towards the government’s failures vis-à-vis chronic insecurity, inflation and the shortage of essential goods like flour and toilet paper. Protesters will affirm that the government’s policies in these areas have given them no option but to take to the streets.
Meanwhile, government supporters point to reductions in inequality and extreme poverty as evidence that its policies, and those of the late Hugo Chávez, are working. Further, the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) retorts that restoring order is essential to prevent another anti-democratic coup-d’état instigated from the imperial north, the USA, like the one that briefly ousted Chávez in 2001.
The most moderate voice during the skirmishes has been that of twice-defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. Capriles, who lost to President Nicolás Maduro by a slender margin in April 2013 has demanded that the protests take place, but that they take place peacefully. Capriles has also argued that they need the participation of the poor in order to be more representative of Venezuelan society.
For his part, Maduro’s ally, Bolivian president Evo Morales, waded into the dispute by calling the protests ‘a coup-d’état planned by the USA’. To presidents Obama and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Morales added: ‘I want to say to you that instead of defending dialogue…you have to defend President Maduro because he has been democratically elected by his people’.
However, whilst I have written before that the quality of Venezuela’s electoral process suggests a strong democracy, the official responses to the protests convey that one fundamental aspect of democracy, the right to protest, is being curtailed or left unimplemented.
According to opposition groups, they have been threatened and attacked by paramilitaries who may be linked with the regime, whilst police have used teargas at nightfall to dispel the any lingering protestors. All this follows hard on the heels of events in November 2013, when the National Assembly granted President Nicolás Maduro legislative prerogatives that allow him to pass laws without needing the ratification of the aforementioned Assembly.
Similarly, press freedom is a democratic mainstay being ignored by the current Venezuelan administration. Whereas three US diplomats were expelled for colluding with anti-government groups, three CNN journalists had their visas revoked on 21 February for producing ‘hostile coverage’ of the protests. A day later however, Maduro said they could remain if they decided to ‘rectify’ their output. Defending the move, Maduro simply stated: ‘I won’t accept a propaganda war against Venezuela’.
But if Maduro has an electoral mandate from the people, he must also have a duty to answer to them. The tight election Maduro won against Capriles in April 2013 was the first sign that Chávez’s revolutionary ‘Bolivarian socialism’ was under threat. Less than a year since Chávez’s death, a very different sort of social change may be taking place in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.